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This Little Word Will Make You a Better Manager

Add this magic word to negative feedback to make it radically more effective.
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Giving feedback is hard. VC Ben Horowitz named it one of hardest skills for executives to master. "Even the most basic CEO building blocks will feel unnatural at first," he writes, noting, that "giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built."

The truth is most of us don’t like to be the bearer of bad news and try to avoid distressing people with criticism, even if that feedback is probably the key to improved performance in the long-term. So how can we get over our natural inclination to sidestep the unpleasantness of telling people their work isn’t up to snuff?

The traditional solution (also endorsed by Horowitz) has a colloquial name that’s inappropriate for a safe-for-work website like this one, but let’s call it "the praise sandwich" for the moment. The idea basically is to sugarcoat the negative feedback by "sandwiching" it between positive comments. The only problem? Apparently, people naturally focus on the good and often fail to process the negative. iDoneThis founder Walter Chen has pointed this out on his company’s blog:

The idea behind the s*** sandwich is that it’s a way to ease people into harsh feedback by starting off the conversation with complimentary praise. This surprisingly results in the exact opposite of what’s intended.

In a study at the University of Chicago, behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach conducted a simulation in which she divided a class in half and instructed one half to give negative feedback to the other. Amazingly enough, the half receiving feedback thought "they [were] doing great."

Why did they walk away with a positive impression of their performance when the students giving feedback set out to let their them know that their performance was unsatisfactory? "Negative feedback is often buried and not very specific," according to Fishbach. In other words, when you feed someone a s*** sandwich, they’re liable to walk away licking their lips.

But if you can’t disguise negative feedback like you disguise broccoli in your kid’s macaroni and cheese, how can you get your team to digest your criticism without causing hurt or rebellion? Author and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha highlighted an incredibly simple three-letter solution on his blog recently -- in short, add "yet" to your feedback.

Suppose your boss pulls you aside and tells you: "You don’t have the right skills for the project."

Then suppose a different situation, where your boss tells you: "You don’t have the right skills for the project, yet" or "You don’t yet have the connections to make this deal happen."

The word yet makes all the difference in the world. In the first example, you feel like a dud. In the examples with "yet," you feel like you may not be ready now, but you could be in the future.

It’s a tiny shift that makes a huge difference, essentially transmuting your criticism from a fundamental performance flaw into an area for improvement in which you’re confident your employee can advance with sufficient effort. And Casnocha isn’t the only expert advancing the idea. Both Carol Dweck, the Stanford professor behind the idea of a "growth mindset," and entrepreneur Chris Yeh have written about the value of the technique.

Should you skip the "praise sandwich" and just add yet to your feedback instead?

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 24, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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